WASHINGTON — U.S. Air Force officials are weighing an offer from a fledgling space company to extend the lives of dying military satellites later this decade to help avoid potential coverage gaps before next-generation systems are available.
Dennis Wingo, chief technical officer for Orbital Recovery Ltd. of London, said in a Nov. 28 interview that his firm also has offered to help the Pentagon develop its own version of the ConeExpress Orbital Life Extension Vehicle to service spy satellites.
Wingo said in the Nov. 28 interview that Orbital Recovery submitted a proposal to the Air Force in mid-November to extend the life of at least one satellite at a cost of less than $100 million , and is awaiting a response from the service.
Orbital Recovery is planning to service an Australian telecommunications spacecraft in late 2008 as its inaugural mission, and could service an Air Force satellite in early 2009, Wingo said.
The company expects to conduct a preliminary design review of the Orbital Life Extension Vehicle in late January, which is intended to assess whether the system is ready to go into initial stages of production, Wingo said. A critical design review scheduled for late 2006 is intended to ensure that the system is ready to go into full production, he said.
If the Air Force is ready to make a commitment to Orbital Recovery at that point, the company could save money by building several systems at once, and savings would increase if the military signs up for multiple missions, Wingo said.
The Orbital Life Extension Vehicle is designed as a secondary payload for the Ariane 5 rocket, and is equipped with a thruster that enables rendezvous with other satellites. The vehicle docks with the satellite to be serviced and takes over station-keeping for that spacecraft, adding years to its useful life.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a similar project under way called Orbital Express, which is intended to test a spacecraft that would service orbiting satellites that are running low on fuel. That experiment, which has run into significant cost and schedule problems, is scheduled for a spaceflight demonstration in September.
Unlike the Orbital Life Extension Vehicle, Orbital Express requires satellites to be designed to operate with the servicing spacecraft. No satellites built to those specifications are currently on the drawing board, and none are likely to be launched — much less run out of fuel — any time soon, making the Orbital Life Extension Vehicle a valuable capability at least in the interim, Wingo noted.
Orbital Recovery can work with satellites not specifically designed for refueling because it simply latches onto the satellites to perform attitude and orbit control without establishing electrical- or fuel-transfer connections, Wingo said.
Wingo said that he also has offered to help the military develop its own variant of the Orbital Life Extension Vehicle to service highly classified spacecraft that the Pentagon does not want handled by a commercial entity. Wingo acknowledged that helping the Pentagon build its own servicing spacecraft could take away potential business from Orbital Recovery, and that the company would agree to do so based on the money involved.
“We’re not cheap, but we can be bought,” Wingo said.
Air Force officials at the Pentagon have begun reviewing Wingo’s proposal with the hope that it could help avoid potential coverage gaps due to delays in development of the next generation of missile warning and secure communications satellites, according to a Pentagon source.
Using the Orbital Life Extension Vehicle to retrieve and handle the station-keeping for at least one Defense Support Program missile warning spacecraft placed in a so-called graveyard orbit could help serve as an interim solution if the military continues to run into schedule problems with the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High constellation, the source said.
The SBIRS High satellites, which are under development by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., were expected to launch beginning in 2002, but the date has been pushed to the right repeatedly, primarily due to technical difficulty with the development of the satellites. The SBIRS satellites currently are scheduled for a first launch in 2008, but the program is undergoing the latest in a string of Pentagon reviews that could lead to program termination due to cost growth.
Air Force officials also are intrigued by the possibility of using the Orbital Life Extension Vehicle to revive at least one of its Milstar communications satellites, which are built by Lockheed Martin and handle top priority communications, the source said.
The Air Force had planned to begin replacing the Milstar constellation with the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites — also built by Lockheed Martin — in 2005, but the first launch of the new satellites has slipped to 2008 due to technical issues.
Wingo said that the company estimates it could add up to eight years of life to a satellite weighing up to 2,500 kilograms when not fueled. Defense Support Program satellites weigh about 2,400 kilograms without fuel, according to an Air Force fact sheet.
Orbital Recovery could add at least six years of life to a satellite weighing about 4,500 kilograms, roughly the weight of a Milstar spacecraft, he said.